(RNS) Robin Williams' suicide may not have been that surprising: Baby boomer men are 60 percent more likely to take their own life than their fathers’ generation, according to a Rutgers University sociologist.
The trend is particularly alarming because middle age is typically a time when suicide rates decline before rising again in old age.
Suicide usually rises drastically during adolescence and young adulthood, then typically levels off in middle age, according to Julie Phillips, a Rutgers sociology professor who researched the effect of unemployment and the Great Recession on suicide rates nationally.
That plateau hasn’t happened with today’s baby boomer men.
"The rise we’ve seen in suicide rates since 1999 among boomers while in their 40s and 50s is unusual," Phillips said. Boomer men are now 60 percent more likely to take their own lives then men their age who were born in the 1930s -- or roughly men of their fathers’ generation.
"We’re in a position now where suicide rates for middle-aged people are higher than those for the elderly," she said. "That hasn’t happened before, at least not in the last century."
Phillips offered some reasons as to why baby boomer men remain at risk for suicide even when they hit an age that has often brought more stability:
Boomer men lived through the jump in divorce rates, making them more likely to be living alone than previous men their age. All age groups also report being less religious than earlier generations. And studies indicate that baby boomers are not becoming more religious as they age, Phillips said. Their disinclination to go to church appears to be permanent.
The current elevated suicide rate in middle age doesn’t bode well for the future.
"The concern is that as those middle-aged people move into old age, where suicide rates are typically higher for men at least, we may see them get higher still," Phillips said.
A double-whammy of health problems -- chiefly obesity -- combined with the Great Recession may have hit baby boomer men hard, in part because such problems may have been unanticipated, she said.
Also alarming is that the younger generation, in their 20s and 30s, appears to be charting a course of higher suicides as well. "This is a troubling trend that we should continue to monitor," she said.
(Kathleen O'Brien writes for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)
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